Synchronized Swimming History


Grace, timing, control, water, and music all combine to create an elegant swim competition known as synchronized swimming. Whether it's done as a solo, a twosome, a trio, or a team, synchronized swimming is about performing routines in the water set to music. How, when, and where it began, how it became a sporting event, and where it is today are a few questions you'll find answers to as you read on.

"Underwater ballet" makes its debut

When professional swimmer and film star Annette Kellerman performed the first underwater ballet in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome in 1907, she launched an attraction that would find its way to the Olympic stage as an official event, 77 years later. Call it "water ballet", "ornamental swimming", or "artistic swimming", it all refers to what was once a way to entertain theater-goers over a century ago, and what would develop into the sport of synchronized swimming. But it wasn't always a woman's event.

At first, ornamental swimming was for men only!

Figure or ornamental swimming started out as an all-male round dance routine complete with garlands and Chinese lanterns. It began in the late 1800s to early 1900s with male swim instructors performing life-saving drills and techniques in the water, and developed into a competition. The first contests were held in Berlin and London and were for men only. They were joined by several countries, including Australia, Canada, France and the US. But it didn't stay a male-only event for long.

It was thought that the activity was better suited to the more "buoyant" feminine physique, and it was given up to the gals. To this day, Olympic synchronized swimming remains a women-only event. However, other national competitions such as USA Synchro, and Synchro Canada, have opened matches up to both men and women, with some events even being inclusive to men, such as the increasingly popular biannual competition known as the "Men's Cup".

Women set figure swimming in motion

A group of young women opened figure swimming up as an exhibition sport at the 1921 national swim championships in Leipzig. The first figure swimming championships were held in Montreal in 1924 with Canadian diver and water polo player Margaret (Peg) Sellers leading the way. Sellers in 1926 became the first to win the national figure and stroke swimming championships.

Figure swim gains popularity in the US, "Synchronized Swimming" is born

When ornamental or figure swimming caught on in the US, University of Wisconsin student Katherine Curtis jumped in head first. She began the water ballet club at the University of Chicago in 1923 where she experimented with strokes, dives, and floating formations. Sixty of her students comprised the Modern Mermaids who performed in a lagoon at the 1934 World Fair in Chicago, lending itself to the rhythmic swim form's lasting label: Synchronized Swimming.

In 1939, Wright Junior College hosted the first synchronized swim competition in the US. There was no turning back from how popular the sport would soon become. A few names rose to the top of the arena, namely American freestyle swimmer and film star Esther Williams, performing at the San Francisco World Fair in 1940. That year, the first synchronized swim competition took place in the US.

Synchronized swim makes a splash on film

A kaleidoscope of water ballerinas performing graceful floating patterns for an adoring audience would not be complete without music. With the onset of WWII preventing Williams from competing in the 1940 Olympics, she joined the Aquacade that had moved from New York City to San Francisco. Her stunning performances got the attention of MGM talent scouts, and she began taking on movie roles that showcased her poise and abilities in the water. That kicked off an era of hugely popular aqua musicals spanning the 1940s to early 1950s. It included such films as Bathing Beauty (1944), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), and Jupiter's Darling (1955).

How synchronized swim developed into the sport it is today

Synchronized swimming became increasingly complex as a sport, and aspired to join the Olympics arena where it was featured as an exhibition at the 1952-68 Games under the governance of FINA. It was rejected as an official Olympic sport, but continued to shine internationally in other venues culminating in the first FINA World Championships in Belgrade, in 1973. It wasn't until the 1984 Los Angeles Games that synchronized swimming became an officially recognized Olympic event. From then until 1992, it featured solo and duet competitions. It was replaced by synchronized swimming team competitions in 1996, but returned to showcase both duet and team competitions in the 2000 Summer Games.

Synchronized swimming now

According to Fox Sports London 2012 on MSN, synchronized swimming exists today as one of two women-only sports in the Olympics. This year's London Games is expected to feature duets and teams of eight swimmers performing short routines to music. The events will be scored according to choreography, level of difficulty, and execution. Strength, grace and flexibility will be key factors for success at the London Games.

References: Lord, Craig. Pub. 2008. FINA Centenary Book. July 11, 2012 from
History of Synchronized Swimming in the U.S. July 11, 2012 from
Fox Sports London 2012 July 11, 2012.

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